Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Incredible complexity of school finance hits home

Published: Tuesday, May. 22, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 3A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013 - 8:16 pm

When Gov. Jerry Brown called the state budget "a pretzel palace of incredible complexity" last week, he was stating, in his inimitable way, the obvious.

During Brown's governorship three decades ago, the budget was a relatively simple and understandable document. Revenue was relatively easy to calculate and spending obligations were clearly delineated. But today's budget is complex almost beyond comprehension, and Brown wants to make it more so.

The budget's largest, most complex and most contentious piece is K-12 education, for which the state assumed primary responsibility after Proposition 13 was enacted in 1978.

Proposition 98, passed by voters in 1988 and modified two years later, supposedly dictates the aid schools should receive. But its formulas are so dense that only a tiny handful of people profess to understand it, and they often disagree on its meaning.

John Mockler, the education consultant who wrote Proposition 98 for the California Teachers Association and other education groups, has quipped that he made it so complex because interest groups would be compelled to hire him to interpret its provisions and allow him to send his children to Stanford University.

School finance is especially unsettled this year. Brown is not only basing his budget on an assumption that his tax increase measure will pass, but his interpretations of what Proposition 98 requires are starkly different from those of the Legislature's budget analyst, Mac Taylor.

To add more complexity, Brown wants to reconfigure state school aid to give more to low-performing urban and rural schools with poor kids and less to schools in affluent suburbs – but details are still in flux.

Taylor disagrees with Brown on how aid should be distributed if the taxes are passed, and how it should be altered if taxes fail. Billions of dollars are at stake, and within the next four weeks, the Legislature must approve one version or the other, or create its own, and decide whether to adopt reconfiguration.

However, at the moment, lawmakers are confused over what school finance law requires, as demonstrated Monday when an Assembly budget subcommittee tried – and failed – to sort out the conflicts.

It's not only a fiscal and legal exercise but a very political one as well, since Brown is counting on public support for education to gain approval of his tax package in November. Voters will be receiving a barrage of conflicting claims and counterclaims and will have absolutely no way of understanding them.

Amidst this confusion, meanwhile, local school officials are attempting to write their own budgets and state schools Superintendent Tom Torlakson declared Monday that 188 districts with nearly half of the state's 6 million school kids are in "financial jeopardy."

A twisted pretzel indeed.

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